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Mariners LHP Yusei Kikuchi
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Drayer: Kikuchi’s velocity up, Kelenic looks good at plate in Mariners’ loss

Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi reached 95 mph with his fastball Sunday. (AP)

It was just one outing, two innings at that, but the changes Mariners starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi made in the offseason were on display from the get-go in Seattle’s first Cactus League game of the spring.

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Kikuchi sitting between 93-95 mph and touching 96 with the fastball in the first inning was a welcome sight for manager Scott Servais in the Mariners’ 7-5 loss to the Rangers in Peoria, Ariz.

“I thought Kikuchi threw the ball really, really well,” Servais said. “He got ahead in the count for the most part. The stuff was good, the velocity was good.”

Kikuchi had a laundry list of changes and improvements he wanted to make after his first season pitching in MLB. First and foremost he wanted to get back the velocity he had in Japan. The power pitcher he was known to be in Japan was quite often hard to find in 2019.

“It’s a relief to see the velocity back to where it was, so early in the spring,” Kikuchi said following his outing. “That was one of the key points Scott actually told me to work on, to get the velocity back to where it was in Japan.”

It wasn’t a matter of getting bigger and stronger, but rather getting more efficient in his delivery and getting his timing back on track.

“It was absolutely mechanics,” he said. “I was told from Scott and the coaches about how my mechanics last year weren’t the same as they were in Japan. That’s what I really worked on.”

The result on Sunday: more effortless velocity.

“You saw the life on the fastball; we did not see that consistently last year,” said Servais.

Kikuchi admitted that the command of his slider still needed work but all in all was pleased with his first outing. The key, as it always is in baseball, will be consistency. Sunday appeared to be a step in the right direction but he will need to stay on a good path for the offseason work to be deemed a success.

In addition to Kikuchi’s performance, Servais pointed to the Mariners’ defense as the highlights of Game 1. Mallex Smith, who was singled out for making two great catches in a situational game Friday, had another highlight reel catch, crashing into the center field wall to steal a double from Rangers first baseman Joey Gallo.

“It feels like that’s what I am supposed to do so I guess it feels good,” said Smith, who struggled mightily with defense in his first months with the Mariners in 2019. “It just means that the work that I put in was efficient. Really I am just looking forward to making those plays all year. Being an elite defender. That’s what I am here to do.”

At first base, Evan White had two nice plays but focused on the one he didn’t make after Kyle Seager made a nice stop behind third base and fired across the diamond. White was unable to haul in the throw, which was bounced in front of him.

“Obviously I messed up the pick over there,” said White. “I’ve got to be more decisive on that play. I had to go out and get it right away. At first I sat back and it was the wrong decision obviously now I know that and will work on it for tomorrow.”

The highlight of White’s day was this diving catch to retire Greg Bird in the second inning.

As has been the case with just about everything in camp, the youth became a focus in this game as well with Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Cal Raleigh seeing playing time after the starters came out. It was an eventful game for Kelenic, who was hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance, doubled in his second and put up a nice at-bat resulting in a walk to load the bases with two outs and the team down two runs in the bottom of the 9th inning.

On Monday, the Mariners host the Cubs with Marco Gonzales making his spring debut. The game will be broadcast at noon on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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